Afghanistan, China, and Indo-Pacific: Significant Challenges in the Indo-Pacific

  • Published
  • By Dr. Manoj Kumar Panigrahi & Arpan A. Chakravarty

With the current situation in Afghanistan unfolding faster than one can blink an eye, many have speculated that the Taliban’s seeming victory will be a confidence booster to multiple separatist and terror groups around the world, most notably to Southeast Asia and South Asia.1

Yet, there has been conjecture that with the Taliban assuming governance of Afghanistan, China, and Russia will be among the countries to gain the most. The Taliban issued a statement that China has a significant role to play in the new Afghanistan.2 With China’s “economy first” and no-holds-barred diplomacy, it is not surprising to see the two sides warming up to each other. In the past, Beijing has shown China’s ability to support political takeovers, irrespective of the type of government formed at the capital. For example, Myanmar, Thailand, and now Afghanistan.3

However, the sudden withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan begs the question of whether China can gain an advantage in the post-war environment? If yes, then what advantages can Beijing realize? Add, if no, what challenges will China’s efforts face and how will Beijing’s policies in Central Asia affect other issues it needs to address, especially those relating to cross-strait relations? And for the United States, will working with like-minded allies in the Indo-Pacific prove an effective way to deter China? Moreover, does New Delhi’s recent talks with the Taliban indicate that latter does not want to rely on only one benefactor?

China did not recognize the pre–2001 Taliban government. Moreover, Beijing welcomed, to some extent, the presence of the American troops in the in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, viewing it as providing some degree of regional stability. The interim Afghan leadership, under Hamid Karzai,4 greatly improved relations with China, with Karzai visiting China in 2002 and again 2006 and 2010 as the president of Afghanistan.

China has been an active partner in developing and rebuilding Afghanistan and in seeking peace in the region. There are multiple reasons for this, primarily gaining access to Afghanistan’s vast mineral deposits that lie within the mountain ranges of Afghanistan.5 In doing so, China would be able to secure a nearby long-term steady resource deposit and advantage in critical technology developments that require such rare earth minerals for innovation and development.

Second, China must have a secure transportation link to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including its long-term investments with all-weather ally Pakistan, i.e., the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). On 20 August 2021, Pakistani militants attempted a suicide attack targeting Chinese nationals.6 If successful in securing a solid deal with the Taliban, China and Pakistan could focus on the security of the CPEC corridor, which is a vital economic linkage between the two countries.

With the abrupt US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Chinese state media had a field day in propaganda, delivering a warning to Taiwan. In one such report, published on 18 August 2021, the Global Times headline cautioned, “Why the U.S. will abandon island of Taiwan eventually.”7 The report mentioned five significant reasons the United States would abandon Taiwan. Furthermore, the article asserted that the current Taiwanese government, led by Pres. Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is “weaker and less motivated than the former Kuomintang (KMT) authorities” and described Taiwanese authorities as “lame ducks,” who are engaged in wishful thinking regarding the likelihood of Washington supporting the island should China opt to seize it by military force.

Such statements from Beijing’s propaganda mill are nothing new, and both Pres. Tsai Ing-wen8 and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have refuted such speculations. Upon being asked about the US commitment to Taiwan in case of an attack, Sullivan responded by saying, “When it comes to Taiwan, it is a fundamentally different question in a—in a different context.”9

China’s increased military flights crossing the median line—the unofficial air boundary between China and Taiwan—has also led to growing concerns of armed action.10 In some quarters, observers have drawn parallels between the Taiwan situation and China’s increasing aggressiveness to the Russian takeover of Crimea.11 The argument is that modern Russian doctrine has heavily influenced that of the People’s Liberation Army's doctrinal modernization.12

However, the comparison between Afghanistan and Taiwan is entirely fallacious. The ground realities between the two situations are wide apart. Unlike the Afghan National Army (ANA), Taiwan’s military is well-trained and equipped with the most-sophisticated US weapons systems. Moreover, combat motivation will play a significant role in any military combat, and the Taiwanese military is unlikely to cut and run in a fashion similar to the ANA.

For decades, the United States has maintained its stance and demonstrated its support toward maintaining the status quo in cross-strait relations. In 2020, when Beijing declared that China does not consider the “median line” in the Taiwan Strait as the de facto air border between the two sides, a US plane flew into the Taiwan Strait following the that very route.13

Since President Tsai took power in 2016, Taiwan has lost half a dozen diplomatic allies to Beijing, attributed tocheckbookdiplomatic tactics employed by China, which promises an enormous economic benefit to countries to drop recognition of Taiwan.14 To counter such measures, the Trump administration signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, on 26 March 2020, to law,15 which supports Taiwan’s diplomatic relations and alters US engagement with those countries that undermine Taiwan’s security and prosperity.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson mentions that China wants to respect the will and choice of the Afghan people,”16 which draws sharp contradictions to Chinese policy toward Taiwan. As per the latest survey provided by the Election Study Center, National Chengchi University, the percentage of people living in Taiwan considering themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese has risen to 63.3 percent in 2021. At the same time, those considering themselves to be both Taiwanese and Chinese was 31.4 percent, and those thinking of themselves as strictly Chinese was a mere 2.7 percent. Such significant differences show the people’s inclination in Taiwan.17

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has sent signals to its allies that the present US administration seeks reciprocity in not only protecting but respecting each other’s interests in achieving a common goal—such as maintaining the status quo in the cross-strait relations. Therefore, as long as the Taiwanese administration does not attempt anything to abruptly alter the current situation, Taipei can be assured of US support.

Even as specific contours of this future policy are emerging, much will depend upon how effectively the United States keeps Chinese ambitions in check while boosting allied country’s economic growth and shaping the regional and international system. It is evident the Biden administration is committed to shifting resources to the Indo-Pacific to deal with China and Beijing’s proxy, Pakistan—unfortunately, a clear-cut blueprint is missing for outlining how the United States and its allies can establish a new division of responsibilities and maintain stability in the Indo-Pacific.18

Dr. Manoj Kumar Panigrahi

Dr. Panigrahi is currently an assistant professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. His research interests include ethnic conflicts, foreign policy, and cultural issues of Indo-Pacific countries. He teaches about East Asian politics and Taiwan–China relations. He has received the Best Scholarship Recipient Student award from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education Scholarship (2016–2020) because of his passion for sharing Indian culture at the grassroots level.

Arpan A. Chakravarty

Mr. Chakravarty is a lawyer, currently working as an honorary assistant director-strategy at Alexis Group, India. His research interests include law, national security, and foreign affairs of South Asian countries. Previously, he interned with the Ministry of External Affairs, India (MEA); Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), an autonomous Indian Army think tank; Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI); and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), among the organizations. He is passionate about furthering the scholarship of law and national security in India and abroad.

1 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s return ‘boosts morale’ of militant groups in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post, 20 August 2021, https://www.scmp.com/; and Ranjit Bhusan, “India major loser in Taliban’s Afghanistan takeover, says leading South Asian strategic expert,” moneycontrol, 18 August 2021, https://www.moneycontrol.com/.

2 “Taliban appeals for international recognition; says China has ‘big role’ to play,” Mint, 20 August 2021, https://www.livemint.com/.

3 Sebastian Strangio, “China Announces Aid Dispersal to Myanmar’s Military Junta,” The Diplomat, 11 August 2021, https://thediplomat.com/; Prasanth Parameswaran, “China, Thailand Eye Deeper Defense Ties,” The Diplomat, 28 April 2015, https://thediplomat.com/; and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on August 16, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/.

4 Zhao Huasheng, and Andrew C. Kuchins, “China and Afghanistan-China’s Interests, Stances, and Perspectives,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, March 2012, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/.

5 Weizhen Tan, “China may align itself with Taliban and try to exploit Afghanistan’s rare earth metals, analysts warns,” CNBC, 17 August 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/.

6 “Suicide attack targets Chinese nationals in Pakistan, children among three killed,” WION News, 20 August 2021, https://www.wionews.com/.

7 “Why the US will abandon island of Taiwan eventually: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, 18 August 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/.

8 Matthew Strong, “President Tsai reacts to Afghanistan comparisons with plea for stronger Taiwan,” Taiwan News, 18 August 2021, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/.

9 “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, August 17, 2021,” The White House, 17 August 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/.

10 Ralph Jennings, “Taiwan Says Chinese Warplanes are Crossing a Median Line, But Is There a Median Line?,” Institute for National Defense and Security Research, 26 October 2020, https://indsr.org.tw/.

11 Libby Lange, and Doowan Lee, “Disinformation, Annexation, & Deterrence: Why the CCP is More Likely to Subvert Taiwan Than Invade,” Lawfare, 22 June 2021, https://www.lawfareblog.com/.

12 Mandip Singh, “Learning from Russia: How China used Russian models and experiences to modernize the PLA,” Mercator Institute for China Studies, 23 September 2020, https://merics.org/.

13 Keoni Everington, “US warplane appears to ‘draw’ median line between Taiwan and China,” Taiwan News, 8 October 2020, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/.

14 Euan Moyle and Alexandre Dayant, “Chequebook diplomacy in the Pacific: Not just the big fish,” The Interpreter, 30 June 2020, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/.

15 American Institute in Taiwan, “The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019,” The White House, 26 March, 2020, https://www.ait.org.tw/.

16 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on August 16, 2021,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 16 August 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/.

17 Election Study Center, “Taiwanese/Chinese Identity (1992/06-2021/06),” National Chengchi University, 20 July 2021, https://esc.nccu.edu.tw/.

18 Hiroyuki Akita, “China’s Neighbors Hope Afghanistan Pullout Means Pivot to Indo-Pacific,” Foreign Policy, 19 August 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/.

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed or implied in JIPA are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents. See our Publication Ethics Statement.